Fairy Tales and the Adolescent Transformation

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After creating the above image, Metamorphosis, recently, I’ve been thinking about the fairy tale as an allegory for puberty and adolescence. The image itself is about the sense of change as one enters that new stage in life. As a child (on the left) we have a solid idea of who we are in the world, but entering adolescence (the figure on the right), our sense of self can be all but annihilated. For a long time it’s a dance between the two. As we pull away from childhood, we have to rebuild ourselves, trying on all sorts of skins; cobbling together influences and ideas until we remake ourselves as adults. We are bone and feather, leaf and twig; a fragile tangle of scavenged treasures.

Fairy tales perfectly explore this mystifying time: Fingers are pricked and blood is drawn; a drawn-out sleep transforms child into adult (and in some cases mother) before she knows what has happened; a path is travelled and foes battled before the previously young and hapless hero or heroine emerges victorious (and usually married).

Adam and Eve

I’d never really thought about the Adam and Eve story in the context of fairy tales before, and when it came to me in that half sleep state last night, I thought myself a momentary genius. Of course this morning I really wasn’t surprised to find that it has been explored widely as myth and allegory. I still think it would make a great fairy tale: Once upon a time, there was a King who planted a beautiful walled garden. He found two orphans, a boy and a girl, and invited them to live in this lush paradise, under one strict condition… See, it’s perfect. There’s the fantastical garden, a command to be disobeyed, temptation, consequence… And of course, the broken barrier between a childhood innocence and adulthood. Adam and Eve are effectively cosseted children, until the forbidden apple awakens their sexual natures and they head out to find their own way in the world.

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Peter Paul Rubens 004” by Peter Paul Rubens

Snow White

Speaking of dangerous apples! Snow White is the perfect allegory for puberty and the breaking away from the influence of one’s parent. The mother is jealous of her daughter’s youth and beauty, and Snow White must find her way to autonomy. I’m not sure shacking up with seven men is the path I’d recommend, but we all need to find our own way I guess…
Snow White suffers several deaths and rebirths, growing a little wiser each time one would hope, finally emerging as a free adult. Well, sort of. She still marries Prince Charming. And speaking of Prince Charming…

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Franz Jüttner Schneewittchen 7” by Franz Jüttner

Cinderella

As above: escape from the overbearing (step)mother, guided path to self discovery and freedom from parental rule, handsome prince, blah blah blah. (Cinderella is not one of my favourite stories).

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Gustave dore cendrillon4“.

The Sleeping Beauty

Bruno Bettelheim says it best in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales: “The central theme of all versions of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ is that, despite all attempts on the part of parents to prevent their child’s sexual awakening, it will take place nonetheless.” (P. 230, 1976 edition)

Yep. Sigh. Sleeping Beauty is cursed to prick her finger (blood=menstruation) and fall into the a deep slumber, and despite all her parents best efforts to keep her from this fate, it is inevitable. Bettelheim also talks about the long sleep in relationship to the fog and flurry of adolescence: “During the months before the first menstruation, and often also for some time immediately following it, girls are passive, seem sleepy, and withdraw into themselves… ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ emphasizes the long, quiet concentration on oneself that is needed.” (P. 225)

Sleeping Beauty enters her adolescent sleep as a child, and emerges as a marriageable women. In Giambattista Basile’s version, Sun, Moon and Talia, poor Beauty, or Talia, wakes up a mother of twins(!) after the prince charmingly impregnates her:

“…she seemed so incredibly lovely to him that he could not help desiring her, and he began to grow hot with lust. He gathered her in his arms and carried her to a bed, where he made love to her. Leaving her on the bed, he left the palace and returned to his own city, where pressing business for a long time made him think no more about the incident.”

Well. There’s a lot I have to say about the infuriating passivity of women in fairy tales (and the accepted male entitlement), and Sleeping Beauty, I think, is a fine bloody example. But that’s for another blog post.

Sleeping Beauty painting by Edward Burne-Jones
Sleeping beauty by Edward Burne-Jones

Little Red Riding Hood

In this tale Little Red literally follows a path through her adolescence. She begins in her mother’s home, and leaves to travel through the wild forest, where she encounters the threat of the wolf (ahem, slick-haired, leather jacket wearing, no-gooder) who attempts to lead her from the accepted path. Depending on which version you read, she is eaten by the wolf after getting into her Grandmother’s bed with him (well, really) or escapes the gastronomic fate of her grandmother. Either way, she is rescued by the hunter (swarthy, check-shirt wearing hipster good guy), and I guess learns a lesson and emerges wiser from her wayward teenage ways.

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Arthur Rackham Little Red Riding Hood+” by Arthur Rackham

I could recount similar examples all day, and get into more complicated stories and readings of them, but looking at these well known tales has edged me towards a little more respect for them. It still bugs me that our most famous fairy tales are those with passive girls who become passive women married to handsome princes (it really does make me grumpy), but at least there’s something more to find in them than ‘be kind and good and wait your turn, and you’ll find eternal happiness and fulfilment in marriage to someone rich and handsome’. Reading them as an metaphor for change rather than instructions for living gives me much less of a stomach ache.


Fairy tales are rich in allegory, for that is really what they are, and there are millions of words written on their deeper meanings. Here are a few you might enjoy. What are your favourite books about fairy tales?

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim.

From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, Marina Warner

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale: Marina Warner 

Off with their heads!: fairy tales and the culture of childhood, Maria Tatar

Fates and Furies: A Review

Fates and Furies

Lauren Groff

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While technically nothing to do with fairy tales, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies draws on, and heavily refers to, mythology  and archetypes… So I’m calling it close enough.

Fates and Furies is the story of a marriage, and while it really is an intensely self-involved portrait of a relationship, it feels bigger. Groff draws a wide net, pulling in a world of mythology, philosophy and experience and concentrating it all down to a simmering and dense relationship between two people.

Her use of myths could have become overdone – there’s an early doomed relationship between Lotto (Lancelot) and Gwennie (Guinevere), a play based on Antigone that reflects themes of the book itself, countless references to Greek works and mythology, many of which I probably missed – but she uses them wisely. We are even interrupted occasionally by small asides embedded in the text: a Greek Chorus commenting on the action. I found my thinking ‘this should seem overwrought, but it works’. Groff’s writing is clever. She know when to hold back, and when to reveal.

I read Fates and Furies as a digital galley, so didn’t realised until l was quite far into the book that it is split into two parts: Fates (from Lotto’s Point of view) and Furies (from Mathilde’s). Mathilde is intentionally keep at arms length in Lotto’s section: we see his obsessive love for her, we feel it, but she is almost a paper cut-out to us the reader. I realised this was intentional, but was glad to cut to her point of view in the second half of the book.

The Fates and Furies are not just used as a catchy title. Lotto himself really is rolled along by fate. Things to happen to him. There are few times when he actively reaches out, but when he does we may find later that maybe the Furies have had some hand in his fate. The Furies, in Greek mythology, “…were female spirits of justice and vengeance. … Known especially for pursuing people who had murdered family members, the Furies punished their victims by driving them mad.” Mathilde is driven by deep rooted anger and revenge. She loves Lotto passionately, there is a ferocity at her core.

Reading Mathilde’s Furies was a deeply satisfying experience after the excess of Lotto’s Fates. Compared to Lotto’s rollicking and ever-increasingly alcohol fogged escapades, it is pointed and well tuned. It fills in gaps, and reveals truths. Some are simply her truths, a changing of our viewpoint to understand her side of their marriage, while others will rock the foundations of what you believe to be true. It is both satisfying and heartbreaking.

I loved this book. There are kindnesses and cruelties, lucky breaks and terrible injustices, love and hate and great (and well written) sex. And there is incredible language: sentences that could have failed spectacularly if not for Groff’s brave and artful writing, a self awareness that could have glared painfully in lesser hands.

I’ll leave you with this excerpt from the first page, which perfectly shows how Groff takes you to the edge of writerly excess, and pulls you back in again, and hope you’ll go get your own copy and read the rest:

For a minute they watched a tidepool full of spiny creatures that sent up curls of sand in vanishing. Then he took her face in his hands, kissed her pale lips. He could die right now of happiness. In a vision, he saw the sea rising up to suck them in, tonguing off their flesh and rolling their bones over its coral molars in the deeps. If she were beside him, he thought, he would float out singing.

Well, he was young, twenty-two, and they had been married that morning in secret. Extravagance, under the circumstances, could be forgiven.

I was lucky enough to receive a review copy through Netgalley. Fates and Furies will be released by Random House UK on September 15th, 2015.

Into the Woods: the Symposium

Last Wednesday, I hopped on the train and made my way to Melbourne Uni for the ‘Into the Woods’ symposium run by History of Emotions. You can find their program here.

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It was a full and wonderful day, focusing on the forest in literature, fairy tales, poetry, contemporary culture and ecology. Unsurprisingly, I’ll focus on the fairy tale presentations I saw. If you’d like an abbreviated version, I tweeted my notes over here. I didn’t make it in time for the keynote speaker, but caught morning tea, and met the lovely Caitlyn, who, coincidentally came down on the same train, from the same town! We live less than 5 minutes away from each other. A lovely way to start the day.

And so, onto proceedings. You may want to read each speaker’s abstracts in the program for a clearer idea of what they spoke about. I’m working solely from my scribbled notes here.

Victoria Tedeschi spoke about the idea that, while we think of the forest as a dangerous place, “Fairy Tales’ most arduous trials take place inside (in the human realm), not in the forest itself.” The forest is actually a place for fostering identity: a place for growth and change. It is in the human domain that danger lies. In the beginning of the industrial age, cities became dirty and full of squalor, and so the first public parks were created… while the ‘wild’ forests were thought to be unruly, even ugly. They were seen to be in the way of agricultural progress. The ‘wild’ fairy tale forest was a place to lose oneself, and find a new identity. It is a means of escape.

I got most excited about Victoria’s reading of Hansel and Gretel. In the beginning of the story, Gretel is completely reliant on her brother. She’s helpless, relying on him to lay (unsuccessful) trails of crumbs and stones. However, after their trek through the woods, and entrapment by the witch in her candy house, she find the power to defeat the witch (by kicking her into the oven) and is the one to lead them home. Hansel, after being caged by the witch, is now lamenting the helplessness of their situation. Gretel, through her time in the forest, has formed a connection to the environment, and even enlists the help of a duck. She finds their way home, pockets full of sweets and jewels, in this way also ensuring her own financial independence. Totally blew my mind. Thanks Victoria!

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By Leutemann or Offterdinger, photo by Harke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Next up we had Rebecca-Anne C. do Rozario with Agony! Misery! Woe!: An Excess of Love in the Forest.  She spoke of the forest as a place of exile and refuge, and also, apparently, full of princes! She discussed the women writers from the court of Louis XIV. They often wrote of exile to the forest while they themselves risked the danger of exile to their country estates if they displeased the King. Not the worst danger they could have faced, but it certainly met social death. Rebecca-Anne discussed Catherine Bernard and Madame D’Aulnoy, particularly D’Aulnoy’s celebration of the male body. D’Aulnoy’s The White Hind explored the idea of a beautiful old woman, much different to the old hag we usually read about in fairy tales, and also the disturbance of the usual heterosexual pairing, with a strong female friendship at the heart of the tale.

D’Aulnoy’s story Le Mouton, features a metamorphosed sheep dripping with splendid jewels, and speaks of him in sensual terms, which leads me to my favourite quote from the day, (from Patricia Hannon): “The indolent sheep is the creation of the female libido.” Don’t you love it? I want it on a coffee mug. Anyway, female writers of the time often led sexually adventurous lives themselves, and didn’t shy away from writing about female desire in their writing.

Back in the forest, Rebecca-Anne discussed Marina Warner’s view of the wolf: he is symbolic of desire itself, and a counterpoint to the old crone, or witch in the woods. The prince too, is an artifice of desire. He is chasing, not the princess in particular, but desire itself.

Athena Bellas spoke next, on An Escape to the Forest in Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood.  She discussed the film and its representation of gender, resistance and space; and also the relationship between the film and the Red Riding Hood stories by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. There is a strong focus on what comes of straying from the path, physically and socially. Interestingly, Athena also discussed the idea of horror being in the home rather than in the wild forest (I’d really like to cover this topic in more detail in a future blog post): In the film, Ringing Hood is escaping her abusive father, and the forest is a marginal space. Through lighting and framing, it is represented as a freeing space for her. Athena has a particular interest in the voice over, where Riding Hood is in control of her own narrative.

She also discussed the differing German and French ideas of the forest in Grimms’ and Perrault’s stories. The German forests are dark and foreboding, while the french are manicured and relatively tame. A place of looming fear vs. a place of wonder.

Amazingly, all the above (and more) was covered in an hour. In the next session we started with Sarah Bartels discussing the the symbolism of the devil in 19th Century English Woodland. She pointed out some of the many plants that were named after the devil, for the simple reason that they were poisonous, spiky, or even just unpleasant to the taste. Sarah looked at the relationship between the natural world (plants and animals) and the supernatural one, and how the balance between the two was negotiated in the beliefs and superstitions of the time.

I then snuck into the other seminar room (multiple presentations make for some very difficult decision making!) to catch Jessica Hancock‘s paper on The Question of Experience and Fiction in Regards to Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves.  She discussed the postmodern idea of whether the artist can be divorced from the work they make – is the connection important? There is an expectation that when an author writes about a place (even in historical fiction) they should have been there, and the belief that with the physical experience of a place it becomes part of the story, not just background. Stef Penney wrote about the Canadian wilderness as if she had lived there all her life, and people believed she had… until it was revealed that she lived in London, was intensely agoraphobic, and did all her research at the library. Should that make us read her story differently? Many people believe so, and it is hard to keep it out of mind while reading the book, even unintentionally.

David Haworth spoke next on Silence, Speech and the Unruly Forest: From Fairy Tales to Carmel Bird’s The Bluebird Café, where:

 ‘Nature is silent in our culture (and in literate societies generally) in the sense that the status of being a speaking subject is jealously guarded as an exclusively human prerogative’- Christopher Manes.

In fairy tales, the forest is loud with (non human) voices, where in The Bluebird Café, the forest is forced into silence. Speech is an expressive of an internal self, a gift bestowed on the forest in fairy tales. In Red Riding Hood we are unsurprised to hear the wolf speak: he is the seductive danger of the forest: His voice is seductive, as is his ability to spin words. David spoke of semiotics as the ‘other’ of language: Not language itself, but entwined with it. In The Bluebird Café the forest has encroached on the town, taken over it. The town and the missing girl are both ghosts, both silenced. Even in flashbacks the girl is mute. The speaking human has privilege in Western cultures, but Bird’s novel makes space for the non-speaking Tasmanian forest in her narrative.

And… break for lunch. Phew. Our brains were overflowing, but the next hour was a wonderful chance to meet several people I heard speak: Sarah Bartels, Victoria Tedeschi and Rebecca-Anne were all fantastic to chat to, and I’m glad to have made their acquaintance. Working away from my keyboard in a relatively small town means I tend to forget that there are real people out there, talking and thinking about the things I’m interested in. And I can talk to them, in real life. I’m so grateful to the organisers of the symposium, and all the wonderful presenters. I haven’t covered all I sat in on, but these were the most relevant to my work, and this blog.

Many thanks to the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Melbourne University, and whoever the caterers were, for the very delicious lunch.

You can follow Victoria, Rebecca-Anne and Athena on Twitter.

Reclaim the Night: Castlemaine

On Saturday night, more that 300 women took the streets of our town to Reclaim the Night.

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We were sick of feeling unsafe walking the streets at night. We were tired of having to think up good ‘come backs’ for men who felt that they were entitled to our attention. We were angry that our daughters will one day feel the same fear and exhaustion and anger.
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 And on Saturday night, we were exuberant, joyful, and strong as we walked as one.
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Men were asked not to walk with us: it was a walk we needed to make alone, but we were thankful for their support, their applause, and the soup they had waiting for us when we reached Castlemaine’s Victory Park.
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I wasn’t a part of the organisation of the event: that job was carried out tirelessly by a incredible group of woman, but I was there with my eldest daughter and her friend (and my camera). Mari is nearly 12, and I told her as much as I could about why we were there. How we want to feel safe from violence, both domestic and on the street. That there are people who sometimes make us feel unsafe, or act out in violence against us, and that is not ok. It is never ok.
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It got me thinking how much I didn’t want to tell my daughters. I don’t want them to know the full extant to which women are hurt and abused. I don’t wan’t them to know about the details of rape, or of violent abuse, or even that some find sport in just making us feel uncomfortable. That some people will treat us with less respect, just because we’re the ‘wrong’ sex. That it’s endemic in our culture, and it’s bloody hard to fight something that is so ingrained that in so many cases it has become invisible. They will know soon enough, and I wish with everything I’ve got that their knowledge won’t be first hand.
Even the tiniest bit.
And it got me thinking about the stories we tell them, the stories we have always told our children, about keeping themselves safe. How for thousands of years we have taught them not to venture into the deep dark woods alone, because who knows what might be lurking.
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We tell them about Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, Hansel and Gretel and the witch in the woods, Vasilisa and the Baba Yaga, so they know be wary of walking alone. We tell them about Cinderella, Snow White, The Girl Without Hands, All Kinds of Fur, so they know that know that abuse can happen in the home too. These are stories they can absorb as entertainment; a lesson given with going into the realities of abuse and violence. A warning wrapped up in a fairy tale.
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On that walk, I felt a solidarity with the women around me, and also for the mothers stretching back through time: who for thousands of years have felt the same urge to keep their children safe from harm, who felt just as reluctant to expose their children to the true harshness of the world they were living in, and who used stories to wrap up the terrors of the world.
I wish we didn’t need those stories. I wish we didn’t have to keep fighting for a world in which we are all equal and safe from harm. Ah yes, if wishes were horses…, and so we march, write, protest, and stand up for ourselves and others whenever we can.
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Our girls are our future women, and they deserve a future in which they feel safe and powerful in their own skin.
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Early Women Photographers: Part I (The Pioneers)

I shared a few early women photographers on Twitter a few days ago, and thought I’d go into a bit more depth here, as a follow on from my posts on Early Women Writers of Fairy Tales and Women Illustrators from the Golden Age of Fairy Tales. Many early women photographers used the fairy tale in their work: limited by social expectations, they stayed close to home and photographed their own friends and family in fashionably allegorical and fantastical scenes. But as you can see here, the very early women pioneers, those working in the 1800s before photography was a respectable hobby, were doing anything but chasing fairies…

Constance Fox Talbot was the wife of the much heralded inventor of photography William Henry Fox Talbot. She is thought to be the first woman to have made a photograph, but doesn’t get much credit for it. At least she is held up for her enthusiasm. Here’s what Maev Kennedy had to say in the Guardian:

There is also a rather dull image of four hazy lines of verse by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, a family friend. It was made by shining sunlight through the original manuscript, on to a piece of treated paper. Ovenden believes it was made by Fox Talbot’s wife, Constance, the first photograph by a woman.

“The archive shows that she was caught up in the excitement of the discovery as early as 1839, and was virtually elbowing him away from the developing table, making her own experiments,” he said.


Anna Atkins
and her husband were friends with the Talbots, and she soon began experimenting with photography too. She is also credited by some sources to have made the first photography by a woman. Neither Constance or Anna used a camera for their ‘first’ images, so the title is contentious. Anna is best know for her cyanotypes of botanical samples, which she began creating not long after family friend John Hershal invented the process in 1942. She published a book of her work a year later, the first photographically illustrated publication. Anna dedicated her life to the study of biology and its representation with the cyanotype process, and has left us with a beautiful and scientifically important legacy.

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Geneviève Élisabeth Disdéri was an early French photographer. She also began experimenting with photography in 1842 after her marriage to fellow photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri. They ran a studio together in Brest, France until he left for Paris in 1852. She ran the studio alone, until moving to Paris and setting up her own atelier there in 1872. She worked as a portrait photographer for many years, but is best know for her architectural views of Brest.

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Thora Hallager brings us back momentarily to Fairy Tales. She was a working portrait photographer, and landlady to Hans Christian Anderson. They wrote often, and she produced a portrait of him in 1869. You can read their letters if your Danish is good, or run them through Google translate, as I have done below. In that letter, he states (as far as I can tell from a clunky translation) how pleased he is with his portrait. It seems that Thora was a professional photographer her whole life, and never married.

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Sofia Carolina Ahlbom  is described on Wikipedia as “a Swedish drawing artist, engraver, lithographer, photographer, map maker, writer, poet and feminist.” I like her already. She supported her family as a professional artist after moving to Stockholm in 1832, and never married. She was also an active writer, and engaged in politics, particularly regarding women’s rights. Ok, now I would very much like to have her to dinner. I couldn’t find any of her photographs, but I couldn’t not include her.

Julia Margaret Cameron was probably one of the most famous of early women photographers. She started working with photographer late in her life, and photographed almost solely her friends and family, often in allegorical and legendary scenes. She also worked her neighbour, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, to produce a photographically illustrated book of his poems. Her works were often derided as being limp and fanciful by her (male) contemporaries, but her legacy is a strong one. Her images may often be soft, but the there is no denying the life and power within them.

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Julia heralded a new wave of women photographers: women who viewed photography as a means for creative expression. Mostly, these early photographers were of the upper classes, and to keep their respectability stuck subjects close to home. They photographed their children and friends, usually in the garden and grounds of their family home. Photography was suddenly a respectable hobby, which meant a flourishing of images that represented allegory, fantasy and fairy tale.

I will explore the creative lives of Victorian Female Photographers in Part II of this series, next time…

On Public Speaking: A Fairy Tale (of sorts)

Once upon a time, there was a girl who couldn’t speak. Her words caught in her throat, built up in her mouth like a river choked with rocks. She dreaded meeting new people, speaking to shop keepers, even everyday conversations with friends, but most of all she dreaded speaking in public. Anticipating a class presentation, she lost sleep and felt sick for weeks beforehand. Finally sitting down again, after struggling through words that stuck and swelled behind her tongue, she was filled with both relief and mortification. Her most intense joy at finishing school, was that she need NEVER EVER stand up and speak in public again. Of course that was far from the truth, but it did get easier. At University, people were nicer about it, and after that, for the most part  she stayed happily out of the spotlight. Over these quiet years: a time of motherhood, art-making, and increasing freelance work and part time jobs that demanded interaction with other people, the blockages started to fall away and words began to run from her like water. She became increasingly passionate about sharing her love of art and stories, and found herself more and more able to discuss them with confidence and enthusiasm. She almost forgot she had a stutter, though it still emerged from time to time. She began to find it easier to speak to a crowd when she needed too, and one day when she was invited to run some school holiday workshops, she suddenly realised that she wasn’t nervous at all. They went well: she told stories and held the interest of her young crowd, they had fun, the clouds parted, birds sang, and they all lived happily ever after. 

Right. Well. It goes something like that. Anyone who knows me well, knows that my feelings towards public speaking have long sat alongside my opinions on medieval dentistry and skydiving. Not for me. When placed under pressure, if my words don’t freeze, then my brain does. So, no one was more surprised than me, when I found myself speaking in front of a crowd (admittedly, of mostly 8-12 year olds) and enjoying it. I wasn’t trying to rush to the end; my words didn’t tumble and halt. In fact, I can’t wait to do it again. Being in front of a crowd has become incrementally easier over the years, and certainly doesn’t hold that same classroom terror, but this was the first time that it felt easy. And I think I’ve worked out why.
There were more people there than it looks!

There were more people here than it looks!

A few days after the workshops, I stumbled across an article about public speaking by Adam Grant on Twitter, and there was one quote that felt like a lightning bolt. ‘Don’t try to calm down… Instead of saying “I am calm,” people gave more compelling speeches when they said “I am excited.”’ Grant’s reasoning is that a calm person is a boring one, and anyway it’s near impossible to turn down the adrenaline if it’s already coursing through your veins. So, channel that fear into excitement.
I realised that’s exactly what I had been doing in the workshops. I love and get excited by the mix of art, illustration, storytelling and the representation and interpretation of fairy tales. I love thinking about it and, it turns out, I love talking about it. True enthusiasm imparts far more on-stage confidence than beta blockers and five espressos ever will. Excitement for a subject is the best confidence booster there is. Well, that and knowledge. There’s nothing like that warm feeling of knowing what you’re talking about.
I do have a stutter, and probably always will, but it’s no longer debilitating. In fact I can go days without it ever making an obvious appearance. And I now know that if I’m excited and knowledgable about an idea, I can get it across to other people. I can’t say that I won’t make a numpty out of myself next time, but at least I feel it’s something I can, and want, to do again. And that’s a good feeling.
So if you struggle with speaking, ignore the advice to stay calm or imagine the audience naked (what?) or have a stiff drink beforehand (don’t do that). Do your research, and get excited. And have that stiff drink after.

Do you speak in public? Do you enjoy it? Does it terrify the pants of you? What’s your best advice to those who would rather be getting a root canal?

The Bird’s Child: A Review

The Bird’s Child

Sandra Leigh Price

From the back cover…

A novel of magic, birds, lost letters and love.

9781460750001Sydney, 1929: three people find themselves washed up on the steps of Miss Du Maurier’s bohemian boarding house in a once grand terrace in Newtown. Ari is a young Jewish man, a pogrom orphan, who lives under the stern rule of his rabbi uncle, but dreams his father is Houdini. Upon his hand he bears a forbidden mark – a tattoo – and has a secret ambition to be a magician. Finding an injured parrot one day on the street, Ari is unsure of how to care for it, until he meets young runaway Lily, a glimmering girl after his own abracadabra heart. together they form a magical act, but their lives take a strange twist when wild card Billy, a charming and dangerous drifter twisted by the war, can no longer harbour secret desires of his own.

The Bird’s Child is a feat of sleight-of-hand. Birds speak, keys appear from nowhere, boxes spill secrets and the dead talk. this is a magical, stunningly original, irresistible novel – both an achingly beautiful love story and a slowly unfurling mystery of belonging.

If you read last week’s review, you’ll understand I was at first a little wary at the promise of such lyrical sounding ‘magic’ in Sandra Leigh Price’s debut novel The Bird’s Child. I needn’t have worried. Price’s book is cleverly constructed, the characters made me feel something about them (and those feelings weren’t always empathy), and the magic in it is many layered and based in the real world. It is the magic of belief and connection; of deflection and sleight-of-hand; of love, faith and belonging.

The book is divided into three parts, named after the stages of a particular magic trick that features in the story: In Full View, The Switch and The Metamorphosis. It revolves around three characters, who alternate in narrating the story. Sometimes they are reliable narrators; sometimes we catch them out, and the truth is eked out somewhere between their three viewpoints. Price lets one contradict another, and then reflects more light into the story with each shift in perspective.

Billy is the first character we meet: a deceiving (and self-deceiving) drifter. We’ve all known people like him; not evil as such, but self obsessed and obstinate in the belief that the world owes them a favour. Women are a prize to be won, and Billy is adamant that he deserves first prize. (He’d be an internet troll nowadays. Just don’t get him started on Gamergate.) He is the most obviously unreliable of the three narrators and, despite wheedling small moments of empathy out of us, the reader, his psychopathic tendencies aren’t far from the surface. You’ll find yourself anticipating his comeuppance with glee.

Ari is caught between the confines of family and religion, and his own desires. A pogrom orphan, his mother is lost to him and his father was always a mystery. He carries a forbidden tattoo, which marks him apart from his Jewish heritage and sets him on his own course.

Lily begins as a something of cipher. She is the unobtainable ‘glimmering girl’ viewed in awe and at a distance by both Billy and Ari as they alternately narrate their way through the first third of the book. In this way we are distanced from her too, seeing her only through the growing obsession of the two male narrators. In Part 2, The Shift, we first move to her point of view, and then the story is shared between the three narrators for the rest of the book. It’s cleverly done. She begins as hardly more than a shimmer of light, emerges and appears far more delicate that birds she befriends, and finally, thankfully, rises phoenix-like as she finds her place in the world.

All three characters live as much in the past as the present, and Price deftly weaves the threads of their history into the novel’s present. There are several motifs that are bound into the story; birds are the strongest, but also amulets, poetry (in the form of song, prayer, the mutterings of the mad) and of course magic. Each character has his own relation to each of these. Keeping all those threads from tangling is no mean feat, and Price does it well.

If I have any quibbles, they are minor. I would have liked to have seen a little more of Miss De Maurier, as she and her boarding house are what bind the three protagonists. I felt she had her own story to tell, even if this book wasn’t the place for it. I was curious about the magic tricks and preparation for the stage too, and would have loved to have seen more, but as they say, a magician never reveals their secret. As I said, these quibbles are minor.

The Bird’s Child is marketed as a lyrical thing, all sparkle and glamour, but don’t be fooled by its stage magic. Look deeper, and it delves into belief, delusion and madness. Price balances lyricism with darkness, sparkle with grit, and skilfully keeps the scales from tipping too far either way. She has created a deft and gleaming debut novel.

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I’m thrilled that Sandra has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the book. I can’t wait to read what she does next. For now, here she is talking about The Bird’s Child

I loved the structure of the book, particularly the three parts, just like a magic trick. Did you plot extensively before starting, or did it fall together as you wrote?

Thank you – I’m glad you liked the three parts to the magic trick – it was in the back of my mind trying to make the whole book have the feel and wonder of the reveal that happens in a magic trick. Not in a superficial grease paint sort of way, but  that moment when one suspends belief and blinks, before the mind can come in and explain what happens. To me that is the magic. I also had the plot of 19th century novel, Trilby by George Du Maurier, a twisted love story where mesmerism is involved circling in my head. And of course, the initial idea started with Ari’s mysterious tattoo – abracadabra – a word that is really like a Russian doll, it has meanings upon meanings.

As to plotting extensively, I had a basic idea, but I’m very much of the belief that the story has a life of it’s own, if I get crumbs to follow I follow them. Things show up from the subconscious that usually are better than what I stared with. A type of marinating.

The way you’ve used magic in the book is very clever. I was a little wary about the promise of talking birds, appearing keys, etc on the blurb, but it lies deeper than that. Can you talk a little about how threads of magic are woven throughout the book?

Again, thank you! It’s a little bit hard to describe isn’t it – it’s not realism but neither is it magic realism – somewhere in between. Magic in all its guises was something I was really fascinated by, but not in a fantasy/fantastical way, more the way we interact with magic in the day to day.  There is the obvious idea of the stage magician that I explored, but also the idea of folk magic and superstition’s use of amulets and incantations and of course the magic in religion, the parable, the miracle, the prayer and the words made flesh. The power of a lie believed is also a type of magic.

Billy was a character I really loved to hate. Did you find it difficult to write such an unlikable and unreliable narrator? Or was it damn good fun? …Or do you actually have a bit of a soft spot for him?

I’m glad you loved (and hated!) him too – I adored writing Billy, as soon as he opened his mouth (metaphorically) he filled the page with his particular outlook – that larrikin spirit gone wrong really – I think he was the easiest character to write because there are quite a few larrikins my family  (though none as twisted as Billy) and I love the Australian vernacular that is fast disappearing, the tall tale, the truth concealed in extravagant lies.

How does your average writing day look? Or is there such thing as an average writing day?!

My best sort of writing day is daily if I can – in the morning, in a cafe with several muse-loaded cups of coffee with my pen and notebook. I write all my first drafts by hand, which is probably crazy (The Bird’s Child first draft was about 26 skinny Moleskin notebooks long if you were wondering!). I aim to write about 4 – 8 pages and am happy if I do more. Then I usually go home and type up a part of it while trying not to re-read too much, just a little prune. Typing up my handwriting. Not so fun.

Can you tell us what’s next on your horizon?

My next novel is currently in progress. I’m quite superstitious about talking about it, as I sometimes think if I pin it down like a lepidopterist’s butterfly then the ideas and words will be dead on a board! But I can say it involves a strong female voice, the 19th century and outsiders. I’m following those crumbs.
Thank you Sandra. May those crumbs lead to magical places!